When popular athletes retire, where do they go? Some become coaches, others disappear into the business sector, and still others resurface on reality TV. A select few, however, return to the organizations with which they made their name. And, in doing so, they become a living link to that team’s history.
Here in Chicago, we have a variety of examples. For lack of a better term, let’s call them "team ambassadors." In some cases, that’s their formal title. In others, they hold down other jobs yet are, in essence, still an influential "ambassadorial" figure who directly affect how fans and others perceive their teams. In this week’s Top Five, let’s recognize these fine gentlemen.
1. Scottie Pippen
Job title: Team Ambassador for the Chicago Bulls
Drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft, Pippen was immediately traded the Bulls. He spent the first 11 seasons of his 17-year career with Chicago, and was a key player in the Bulls' six championships during the 1990s. He was also a seven-time NBA All-Star, winning the All-Star MVP award for the 1993-94 season.
The Bulls traded Scottie to the Houston Rockets in 1999 for Roy Rogers and a 2000 second-round draft pick, Jake Voskuhl. After playing in only four games for the Rockets, he was traded to the Portland Trailblazers, a team on which he played minimally until he retired following the 2002-03 season.
Thereafter, Scottie didn’t immediately return to the Bulls organization. Instead he worked internationally to promote the game of basketball and spent time, "enjoying my retirement." Many fans and pundits interpreted the silence between Pippen and his former team as a sign that either there was some sort of conflict or that the Bulls were simply disrespecting this great player.
But, on July 15, 2010, the Bulls announced that Scottie was finally coming back to the organization as a team ambassador. He'll appear at home games and Bulls-related events as well as contribute to the organization’s charitable endeavors. That doesn’t, however, mean he won’t be helping the guys on the court. He’s recently been spotted giving pointers to young forward James Johnson.
Honorable mention: On Oct. 28, 2010, the Bulls added another ambassador to their roster — former player Sidney Green. The Bulls drafted Green fifth overall in 1983, and he played for the team from 1983 to 1986 as a power forward. He had been working as a scout and Player Development Assistant but will now join Scottie Pippen in representing the Bulls at team and community events as well as at many games.
2. Ron Santo
Job title: WGN Radio color commentator for the Chicago Cubs
Signed by the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1959, Ron Santo may still be the team’s greatest third baseman of all time. He played 13 of his 14 major league seasons with the Cubs — 1960 to 1973 — and was named to nine All-Star teams during his career. He was a career .277/.362/.464 hitter, who is the only third baseman in MLB history to post eight consecutive 90- RBI seasons (1963-1970). He drove in 1,331 runs for his career.
Although he closed out his playing days with the Chicago White Sox, a trade that even Santo himself admits did neither team much good, Ronnie never really left the Cubs organization. He always remained involved with the team, tangentially or otherwise. In 1990, Santo officially returned as a broadcaster and has been in the radio booth ever since. The Cubs retired his No. 10 in 2003.
Although some fans don’t care for Santo’s "moaning and groaning" broadcast style, no one can deny that his long sighs, guttural screams and yelps of joy embody the heart and soul of every true Cubs fan. His long and, thus far, fruitless quest to be rightfully inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame also rings familiar with supporters of the North Side team, who know a thing or two about waiting for something that should happen but never seems to.
The Cubs have yet to officially name a former player as team ambassador. Rather, beginning just this year, the Ricketts ownership group established an ambassador program overseen by Jahaan Blake, the team’s Director of Fan Experiences.
Honorable mentions: Former players Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Randy Hundley are also still involved with the Cubs in various capacities and serve as de facto ambassadors.
3. Bobby Hull
Job title: Team Ambassador for the Chicago Blackhawks
"The Golden Jet" was one of the greatest players of his time — and quite likely the best left winger in NHL history. Hull played in Chicago for the first 15 seasons of his 23-season professional hockey career, earning his nickname because of both his own extreme speed on the ice and the velocity of his slap shots.
In 1966, he was the first NHL player to score more than 50 goals in a season, and he was named to an NHL All-Star team 12 teams. Most important of all, of course, Bobby played a central role in the Blackhawks’ 1961 Stanley Cup championship — the last time the team won Lord Stanley’s cup until, of course, this year.
Frustrated with the NHL’s low salaries, Hull jumped ship to the fledgling World Hockey Association and played for the Winnipeg Jets in 1972. He stayed there for just over seven seasons before a merger of the leagues returned Bobby to the NHL to finish the 1979-80 season — and his career — with the Hartford Whalers.
On December 18, 1983, the Blackhawks retired Hull’s No. 9 sweater at old Chicago Stadium. And, some 25 years later, on March 7, 2008, in a ceremony with former teammate Stan Mikita at the United Center, Hull was officially named a team ambassador.
Honorable mentions: Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito and Denis Savard are also team ambassadors. You can watch a great video featuring all four here.
4. Frank Thomas
Job title: Team Ambassador for the Chicago White Sox
Drafted by the White Sox in the first round of the 1989 amateur draft, "The Big Hurt" went on to become one of their greatest players. He wore the black and white for an astounding 15 seasons before leaving to join the Oakland Athletics as a free agent in 2006. Thomas was a five-time All Star who remains the White Sox franchise leader in a wide variety of categories, including home runs (448), RBI (1,465), slugging percentage (.568) and on-base percentage (.427).
Thomas played the 2007 season and part of the 2008 season for the Toronto Blue Jays. But, after a widely publicized dispute with their designated hitter, the Canadian team released him in April 2008, after which he returned to Oakland to finish out his playing career. He did not play in 2009 and officially announced his retirement in February 2010.
On July 27 of this year, the White Sox officially named Thomas a team ambassador and, on August 29, they retired his No. 35. "The Big Hurt" also wields his considerable experience as a former player as a postgame analyst for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. He’s widely expected to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he reaches eligibility in 2014.
Honorable mention: Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk is also a Sox team ambassador. He was honored with the title by the team in May 2008.
5. Tom Thayer
Job title: Play-By-Play Analyst for WBBM-AM radio
Although the Bears list no formal team ambassadors on their website, our vote would go to Tom Thayer. He was drafted by the Bears in the fourth round of the 1983 NFL draft and played for the team as a starter from 1985 to 1992. It was his debut season, however, that earned him a little piece of Chicago gridiron immortality. Playing offensive guard, he was a key member of the historic — some might say mythic — 1985 team that won the Super Bowl.
These days, Thayer provides passionate, erudite game analysis on the radio. And though he maintains a professional objectivity while on their air, there’s no doubting that the blue, orange and white still runs through his veins. He makes this evident during weekly appearances on the Steve Dahl Show podcast as well as occasional radio gigs on The Score. Thayer also still lives in the Chicago area.